Jane Bremmer is the Secretary and Zero Waste Coordinator for the National Toxics Network Australia (NTN). NTN is a not for profit, civil society network working towards pollution reduction, protection of environmental health, and environmental justice for all, as well as working towards the full implementation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and other global chemical conventions.
Here, she talks to Vera Koester, ChemViews Magazine, about what makes microplastic pollution particularly catastrophic, what should and what should not be done, and what are only distractions in the fight against microplastic pollution.
One of your main areas of interest is microplastic. Why is this?
Microplastics in our environment represent one of the most serious environmental justice threats of our time. It is a big issue at the moment in the media, and rightly so. There is no other way to describe the issue of microplastics other than a global catastrophe. It appears that every corner of the planet is now contaminated with microplastics: they are in the air we breathe, on the tops of mountain peaks, and in the deepest trenches of the ocean, they are in the food chain, and they are likely to be in the bodies of human beings. There is currently not enough information to know exactly what that means in the long term for human health and the environment but initial investigations are compelling us to act without delay.
What are the main problems with microplastic pollution?
One of the things about microplastic pollution is that the very property of plastic that makes it so useful to us, is the very same reason that makes it very harmful in the environment: Plastic does do not break down.
Microplastic pollution is particularly catastrophic because it has become a vector for the concentration, transport, and distribution of chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) into the environment and into the food chain. POPs are highly bio-accumulative in animals and can cause cancer. So really, we should be considering microplastic pollution in the same vein as POPs.
Let me quote Sylvia Earle, a very famous ocean activist. She has described the microplastic pollution of the ocean as “the other oil spill”. And she is right. When we consider plastics’ production, we are talking about the fossil fuel industry, in particular, the petrochemical arm of the fossil fuel industry. Virtually all plastics are made from fossil fuels, representing about 8 % of global oil consumption.
While caps on carbon pollution in the fossil fuel sector attempt to address climate pollution impacts, the petrochemical arm of this same industry has plans to massively increase plastic production. Therefore, any gains made have the potential to be lost and overshadowed by increased plastic production, when you consider the full life cycle impacts of plastic production from raw (and recycled) materials extraction right through to disposal. Any credible attempt to address the impacts of microplastic pollution must recognize the cross-sector nature of the problem and the vertical and horizontally aligned industry behind it.
Do you think the problems are the same around the world or different in different countries?
I think the impacts of waste, chemicals, and plastic contamination and pollution are the same all over. However, the consequences are clearly worse for less developed countries where waste systems and infrastructure are not capable of capturing plastic waste and where subsequent pollution threats represent a violation of their human rights.
The western world is very good of pointing the finger at less developed countries for the global plastic pollution problem, but not very good at owning up to their role in that problem. While the visibility of plastic waste in less developed countries drives this, those corporations largely based in the EU and US are responsible for targeting these countries with single-use plastic sachets and other single-use plastic products, knowing full well they cannot be safely managed or recycled. This design failure in effect exploits the poor and profits wealthy western corporations.
The perverse irony is that while wealthy developed countries appear to be cleaner, with less visible plastic waste escaping into the environment, plastic recycling often means incineration which is ultimately just burning fossil fuels and diverting those chemical pollutants to the atmosphere and global environment. In terms of microplastic pollution, wealthy developed countries release significant amounts of microplastics and microfibres directly into the ocean from terrestrial sources such as industrial, agricultural, and wastewater systems.
So, what do you think are good ideas to solve this problem?
Well, there is a lot of commentary on the issue. In terms of solutions, Annie Leonard from The Story of Stuff Project said so eloquently in a Guardian article that when you come home and you find that the house is flooded, you don’t reach for the mop, you turn off the tap.
Yes, that is true.
The only credible solution to the global disaster of plastic pollution is to put a cap on production. We simply cannot manage the waste volumes that currently exist by adding to this problem with the expected increase in plastic production. It will only make the problem worse.
Then we need to mop up the mess by ensuring that we capture all plastic waste before it escapes into the environment. We can do this through sustainable and proven zero waste models which many EU cities and also less developed countries are already practicing, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. We know zero waste models that focus on separate collection and source separation provides the backbone of a circular economy, instead of an unsustainable linear economy of extraction, consumption, and disposal.
Finally, we need to clean out the cupboard. We cannot risk poisoning the circular economy by ignoring the toxics involved in plastic production. Toxics elimination and redesign of products is crucial to a circular economy. Again the cross-sector nature of the problem requires a cross-sector solution.
A solution which industry is proposing is to use plastic waste as a resource to burn for energy. This is environmentally unacceptable. Plastic is no more a renewable energy source than any other fossil fuel. Ironically burning plastic waste for energy generates persistent organic pollutants that in turn adsorb onto microplastics.
The American Chemistry Council has already declared their intention to pursue pyrolysis technologies to transform plastic waste into energy or chemicals. Pyrolysis technologies are two-stage incinerators designed to create a syngas from plastic waste and then to burn this syngas for energy or use it to make chemicals. This technology only serves to keep a business as usual approach to plastic production and is not regarded as a valid recycling technology although industry often tries to claim this.
Chemical recycling is still energy intensive and creates additional problematic and hazardous wastes in the process, and especially impacts the host communities, while doing little to reduce new plastic production.
Recent announcements by corporate industry groups such as the ‘Alliance to End Plastic Waste’ highlight the need for greater corporate transparency and accountability around proposed solutions. While those corporations signed up to the ‘Alliance to End Plastic Waste’, invest a mere $1 billion in end of pipe solutions, clean-up projects, and plastics recycling infrastructure, they are at the same time investing much more, in the order of tens of billions of dollars, to expand their investment in plastic production.
We simply do not have time to waste playing another corporate fossil fuelled charade.
You said earlier that microplastics should be handled similarly to CO2 emissions.
Yes. This needs a lot more attention. As I have said, we have to put a cap on plastic production immediately as a way to stop the increase of microplastic pollution in the environment. From the generation of microplastic pellets as raw materials to the generation of single-use plastic products that easily escape into the environment degrading into microplastics, the hazardous nature of microplastics and their adverse impacts for all life on earth, demands such action.
Turning off the tap. Is zero waste a concept?
Zero waste is a goal and a practice to manage our finite waste resources in such a way that reduces the generation of residual waste to as low as possible and to eventually eliminate the need for waste disposal. Zero waste policy is an integral part of a circular economy where our materials production systems are a closed loop, toxics-free, and as sustainable as possible. The redesign of plastic materials and products and the elimination of microplastics is central to this goal. The majority of residual wastes generated in our society that require disposal to landfill or incineration are single-use plastics. We have to turn off the tap to unsustainable plastic materials production if we want to achieve a circular economy.
Microplastics are heavily discussed in the media. Do you think the media coverage is helpful, or is it going into wrong directions?
I think media coverage is very helpful because, like chemicals, microplastics are invisible to most people. Society puts a lot of faith in government regulation to protect our health and environment. But, as we know, when you scratch the surface, we can see that our planet is contaminated with harmful chemicals and microplastics right across the globe from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountain peaks, demonstrating that regulation has failed.
I think it is really important that the public is educated and has access to information because we have been lured into a false sense of security. And that false sense of security has allowed the chemical industry to be very lumpatious in their growth. [Comment of Editor: lumpatious = disrespectful]
What got you personally interested in this topic?
Well, I have spent about the last twenty-five years of my life focused on environmental health and justice campaigns. It started from a very personal perspective: With a newborn baby, my partner and I bought our first house together on the outskirts of my home town in Perth, Western Australia. What we did not realize was that we had bought a house right next to Western Australia’s worst contaminated site. Next door was a former clay pit that had been filled with waste oil and had contaminated the groundwater and community for 50 years. It had caught fire in the 1960s and overflowed every year into neighboring properties. We were completely unaware of its existence because the government at the time had no contaminated sites database or laws requiring such information to be available to the public.
That propelled me and my partner into a world of toxicology investigations and the environmental justice fight of our lives. I am proud to say that our efforts brought in a Contaminated Sites Act to Western Australia and resulted in the relocation and compensation for the most impacted residents as well as a clean-up of the site. We learned a lot from this experience and soon established a state-based environmental justice NGO—the Alliance for a Clean Environment. Our network has grown and connected with other organizations in Australia such as the National Toxics Network and around the world to help other people.
In addition, I have served ten years on the Community Engagement Forum of the Australian Chemical Regulator—the National Industrial Notifications and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) where I learned a lot about chemical regulation and sadly also about the failure of regulation to protect our environment and human health. This encouraged me to empower communities to defend their human rights to clean air, water, and soil through the principles of ‘community right to know’ and access to independent science and expertise.
Thank you very much for this interview.
Jane Bremmer has an Advanced Diploma in production and design from Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia, and a Bachelor of Arts with a major in gender politics from Murdoch University, Perth. In 1998, she co-founded the Alliance for a Clean Environment (ACE). From 2004 to 2014, she has served as a member of the Community Engagement Forum of the Federal Regulator of Industrial Chemicals (NICNAS), Sydney, Australia.
Currently, she is the Zero Waste Coordinator and Secretary for the National Toxics Network (NTN), New South Wales, Australia, and works collaboratively with the International POP’s Elimination Network (IPEN), the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), and is an advisory committee member for the Environmental Justice Society Australia.
Jane Bremmer was awarded the Sunday Times Pride of Australia Medal for environmental activism in 2007.